A consulting company is investigating the best way to improve friction on the runway at the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, according to the BVI Airports Authority. (File Photo: TODD VANSICKLE)

The BVI Airports Authority requested $15 million to improve the friction of the runway at the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, according to a report on the deliberations of the Standing Finance Committee.

During the March and April deliberations — which are not open to the public — BVIAA Managing Director Denniston Fraser reportedly told the SFC that his agency had requested the money from the Ministry of Finance.

The runway, he reportedly explained to the committee, would need to close if the friction issue is not addressed. Neither Mr. Fraser nor Ronald Smith-Berkeley, the permanent secretary for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour — the agency responsible for the airport — could be reached for further comment.

BVIAA Director of Operations Coy Levons, however, explained last week that long-term wear and tear had caused the runway’s friction levels to degrade to a point close to a “rehabilitation” stage — something that, if allowed to happen, could pose risks for larger aircraft, particularly when landing in the rain.

The BVIAA, Mr. Levons noted, had not seen any issues yet and is working closely with the United Kingdom overseas territories’ aviation regulator, Air Safety Support International, to rectify the problem before that point is reached.

The original idea was to improve the friction levels of the runway during the long-planned-for expansion of Beef Island’s airport, according to the operations director. When that project was delayed indefinitely, ASSI notified BVIAA that it would need to improve the friction on its own.

Jacobs Consultancy

The BVIAA is contracting the multinational company Jacobs Consultancy to map out the terms and scope of the project, which will then go through a public tender process, Mr. Levons explained.

He added that he expects the physical works to commence next January. ASSI, he noted, is satisfied with that plan.

“Works are ongoing,” Mr. Levons said. “Jacobs is coming this month to do the usual reconnaissance.”

Funding

The operations director said he could not comment on the estimated price tag for the project.

Though the airport runway “friction improvement plan” is listed as a line-item development project in the 2018 budget estimates, the document doesn’t provide any cost estimate.

In the SFC report, Mr. Fraser reportedly said that ASSI had provided a preliminary cost estimate in early 2017 of $5 million, which BVIAA in turn requested from the Ministry of Finance.

Extensive research by Jacobs, however, led to a revised estimate of $15 million, which resulted in a subsequent request for an additional $10 million from the ministry, the managing director reportedly explained.

Airport expansion update

Meanwhile, government officials are still pressing for the long-delayed expansion project.

At a press conference on May 30, Premier Dr. Orlando Smith (R-at large) said his government would continue its efforts to have the runway expanded “certainly during the next year.”

A draft of the VI’s “Recovery and Development Plan” that was published in January includes a cost-estimate table that lists a $250-million line item for the expansion.

Later that month, Brodrick Penn, the chairman of the Disaster Recovery Coordinating Committee, clarified that government was not planning on funding the project on its own but was looking for a major investment from the private sector.

In a subsequent press conference, Dr. Smith noted that government was seeking a private-sector partner to not only design and build the airport expansion, but also to operate it for a certain period of time afterwards, allowing the partner to recoup its costs.

Such partnerships often entail the private-sector stakeholder operating an airport for about 20 years, Dr. Smith added.

Warnings

Government has shifted in this direction despite previous warnings against such a proposal: The project’s 2016 business case outline, conducted by the firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, stated that a public-private partnership, referred to as the “concession approach,” was at that stage no longer “considered a viable funding option for the project.”

But in April, Dr. Smith spoke of “ongoing discussions” with people and groups interested in developing the project.

During the SFC deliberations, Second District Representative Mitch Turnbull reportedly asked BVIAA officials whether the airport would be privatised.

BVIAA Chairman Glenn Harrigan responded, saying the authority had “engaged a firm to assist with the process of trying to find a firm willing to undertake the development of the airport, but it is too preliminary to say at this time,” according to the SFC report.


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